We love books. We wish there were a bumper sticker that says; I’d rather be reading. We really love it all—thrillers and mysteries, literary novels, histories, biographies, cookbooks, how-to’s, self-improvement, science and more. We started this book club years ago because we wanted to share our passion and let people know about great new books. We’ve changed and evolved over the years—some of our books would probably make the founders blush. Bottom line, our editors still want to make sure devoted fans get the latest books by their favorite authors. And we like nothing more than to introduce exciting discoveries that readers will recommend to their friends. What inspires us to do it? Simple, we love books.
—from the Book of the Month website
To “read” a “book” these days can mean many things. The definition of a book can mean so many things. But there was a time when a book was a book, and for a book to be chosen as the “Book of the Month” was to be given the book-keeping seal of approval, so to speak.
The Book of the Month Club (BOMC) was founded in New York City in 1926 by Harry Scherman, former copyrighter for J. Walter Thompson and co-founder of the “Little Leather Library,” a mail order service for miniature reprints of “great books.” Scherman, along with partners Max Sackheim and Robert Haas, established the Club as its own household brand, going from 4,000 subscribers to 550,000 in twenty years, where they became seen as a sound selector of good books and sold titles by means of its own prestige. A title or author did not need to have an existing reputation before being chosen as a Book of the Month, as the act of being chosen in itself was the barometer of success.
According to the list of “Privileges of Subscribers,” the Club works as follows:
Every month the best book of the month, chosen by the Selecting Committee, is sent to each subscriber (unless he specifies some other preference) and is billed at the current price set by the publisher in each case, plus the few cents for postage. The book sent each month ranges in price from $1 to $3, but in no case more than $3.
When it was launched, one of BOMC’s key selling points was free access to its “selection service,” where a Selecting Committee of five members determined each month what was the “best” book to read, leaving the subscriber the peace of mind that the choice had been made democratically and thoughtfully by a committee of qualified members by secret ballot.
The original members of the Selecting Committee were:
Henry Seidel Canby (1878-1961), Chairman, a critic, editor, and professor at Yale University. He edited the Yale Review and then the Literary Review supplement of the New York Evening Post, the most influential literary weekly in the United States in its time.
Heywood Broun (1888-1939), a journalist and founder of the American Newspaper Guild best remembered for his writing on social issues and his championing of the underdog.
Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958), a best-selling author as well as an educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling American who supported women’s rights, racial equality, and lifelong education.
Christopher Morley (1890-1957), journalist, novelist, essayist and poet and the the well-known author of many books including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.
William Allen White (1868-1944), a renowned editor, author, and leader of the Progressive movement.
This is indeed an impressive group of referees, although how much variation in taste and opinion one can find in any group of five individuals is questionable. According to the BOMC brochure, “In order to be chosen as the “book-of-the-month,” a majority of these five individuals has to give a book first place among all the books considered.” The Committee members decided what titles and authors would be read by the Club’s thousands of members and could create a literary success in an instant. The brochure does go on to point out that:
It should be clearly understood that this combined judgment is not set up as being either final or infallible. The judges themselves would be the last ones to consider it so. It is simply a practical method of arriving at the most outstanding book each month. The theory is—and it works!—that any book appealing strongly to five individuals (of such good judgment and such differing tastes themselves) is bound to be an outstanding book.
Enough subscribers agreed with this theory to ensure the lasting success of the BOMC into the twenty-first century. Its status as arbiter of literary taste has diminished significantly over the years as new technologies brought new ways of bringing books to the public. In the age of the big box stores, Amazon, Audible, iTunes, and Abe Books, not to mention sites such as Goodreads and Shelf Awareness, individual readers make informed choices based on industry recommendations and audience reviews and can “consume” their reading material in a plethora of media, only one of which is the good ol’ fashioned printed book.
- The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club by Charles Lee (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958) provides a history of the club, the book selection and membership procedures, and a list of all selections, dividends, and alternates from 1926 to 1957.
- The Books of the Century, a website compiled by Daniel Immerwahr, lists the Club’s main selections from 1926 until the mid-1970s.
- Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, 1997) offers a cultural analysis of the BOMC and its readers.
- William Zinsser, A Family of Readers; An informal portrait of the Book-of-the-Month Club and its members on the occasion of its 60th Anniversary. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1986. 74 pp.
View a PDF of the 1927 Book of the Month Club brochure here.